Keighley at double as Hereford closes

  • Last Updated: December 16 2012, 17:14 GMT

Hereford is anything but the prettiest or the most popular of Britain's racecourses but it was easy to sympathise with those who care about it as the gates shut for quite possibly the final time on Sunday.

Alain Cawley: Rode final two winners at Hereford

Meetings have been staged at Hereford for more than 240 years and a decent crowd of 2,600 gathered to bid farewell - around twice as many as usual according to clerk of the course Keith Ottesen.

But it could not quite be said the locals had turned out in force as only 1,100 of those were actual paying customers.

Some 500 tickets were distributed free locally and others were taken by those involved, with general manager Darren Cook saying he was "disappointed, as we promoted it heavily".

Disputes with the local council over the lease have led to the owner Arena Racing Company (ARC) deciding to curtail a business which it says it is not financially viable.

Even if this is the case, any of the remaining races of even vague importance have long been transferred elsewhere and recent investment in the facilities at the venue is non-existent, with the bar for owners and trainers, for example, housed in a fairly dilapidated shack.

Unless a new party comes in, and there has been talk but apparently no concrete evidence of such at the moment, it seems most likely it will lie dormant for the remaining 17 years of the lease.

Developers would surely be clambering over each other to get their hands on pieces of the plot, as it lies within the city, and encroaching houses, factories and leisure facilities already provide a distinctly urban landscape.

But the track itself is a fine one, almost square in shape with plenty of space and inviting obstacles.

It used to be favoured by Michael Dickinson, who sent Bregawn to Hereford for a prep-run only a few days before he led home the trainer's 'famous five' in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Sadly, the most valuable race staged in 2012 was worth little over £4,500 and established horses do not appear with regularity.

Perhaps Mighty Man, who was trained fairly locally by Henry Daly, was the last smart horse to appear three years ago.

Richard Johnson, perennial runner-up in the jockeys' championship to Tony McCoy, was born just five miles away and rode his first ever winner at Hereford on his grandfather's Rusty Bridge in 1994.

Johnson, appropriately, was on the board when taking the opening Free Radio Novices' Hurdle on Sammys Gone.

"I was 16 when I first rode here, so it's very sad," he said.

"I know a lot of people have said they are keen on trying to do something to keep it open, so I really hope they do."

Also a winner was his friend Robert Thornton, who landed the maiden hurdle.

"It's terrible," said Thornton. "I'm still kind of hoping they sort something out, as this place has been very kind to me over the years."

The area is not short of courses, with Worcester, Ludlow and then Cheltenham and Chepstow not unreachable, but the Welsh Marches is a strong National Hunt region where trainers such as Venetia Williams, Michael Scudamore and Richard Lee are based.

Many of the top names, like David Pipe, Jonjo O'Neill and Philip Hobbs made sure they had runners, while another who will miss the place is Charlie Longsdon, who claimed his fourth of the campaign through No No Bingo in the C Stanley Jones Handicap Chase.

"We're about 50% from runners this season and last, so the horses always run well here," he said.

"It's not high-grade racing but it's sad and we couldn't not be here, along with many other trainers."

A quickfire double for trainer Martin Keighley and jockey Alain Cawley in the last two races meant they etched themselves into a little bit of history, with Seymour Eric driven home in the concluding Thermolast Handicap Hurdle.

Keighley said: "It's a local track to me, it's well run and it's sad to see it go. Hopefully something can change."

Irishman Cawley said: "It's been a very lucky track for me since I came over, I love this place."

Aside from the brief smoke-and-mirrors disappointment of the opening and subsequent closure of Great Leighs in 2008, the last track to vanish was Stockton back in 1981.

It is not inconceivable that Hereford will be resurrected, as ARC must keep it maintained for the time being, but otherwise it will be joining a lengthening list of long-forgotten names like Wye, Hurst Park, Lanark and Lewes.


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